Necessary and Sufficient

Guest author, Christina Austin, shares some thoughts from Stompology:

photo by Kevin Quaderer

My greatest flaw as a dancer is probably my tendency to let my social anxiety strangle me.

My fear of screwing up on the dance floor manifests in frequent “thinking face” when I’m being led, even by familiar leads, through new or complex patterns, and in my tendency to choke when I ask a ‘high-status’ leader for a dance. My favorite definition of “choke” is from the book Deep Survival: a reversion to the state of being a beginner, wherein you consciously think about what you’re doing, as opposed to the more advanced state of performance where “muscle memory” largely controls the specifics of movement. To choke is to lose one’s flow.  The mechanics of this for me personally usually looks like bad posture and too much tension in my arms and body, which hinders my ability to follow sensitively. In either case, the process is too much thinking and the product is less than sublime dancing.

Which is a shame, because my favorite part of dancing, the high that I am always chasing that keeps me coming back, is found in the moments when I am not in my head but in my body, fully with the music and my partner.  There is a thrilling physicality to just letting go and dancing.

The off-the-dance-floor part of this story relates to my other passionate hobby, which is rock climbing. There is a term in rock climbing, “lead head,” [as in leading, not as in the element Pb] which refers to one’s ability to assume and manage risk while putting the rope up. There are genuine dangers associated with this- you can really die or (more commonly) you can really injure yourself badly as a consequence of failure. Nonetheless, the most rewarding climbs are those during which you do not dwell on the dangers or think about falling but simply climb.  Some people are never capable of this, and the state of having a good lead head is something most climbers pursue relentlessly and achieve only intermittently.

This spring, I have had an amazing run of weekends during which my lead head has been excellent. I have, for the first time in several years, been able to sidestep my panic response and concentrate on climbing.  The key to this has been discrimination between rational fear and irrational fear/panic response.  (See Deep Survival or The Rock Warrior’s Way for further reading.) Rational fear is dealt with by taking reasonable precautions and irrational fear is ignored/discarded/not consulted. And discarding irrational fear and moving through it feels amazing.

Lately, I have been thinking about these concepts as it relates to my dancing.

I took my first-ever private lesson last fall with Kevin St. Laurent, with the stated goal of being more fun to dance with socially. “We can do that,” he confidently replied. And then we spent an hour tearing apart my ideas about connection and assembling something entirely different in its place. That lesson radically changed my dancing for the better, but it also opened my eyes to what a “good” dancer I was not. And I felt ashamed for having ever thought that I was a good dancer when I obviously had so far to go.  That shame has been something I’ve been living with. It has been especially manifest when I ask for a dance with someone I’ve admired from far, but moving past that shame to simply dealing with the present is crucial to my moving forward.

About a week ago, I went to Stompology, and I felt had a breakthrough in dealing with this shame. I had several classes with Evita Arce, and in one, she expounded on the concept of self-sufficiency.  Not in the common American ideal of “I will do everything myself,” but more like: “I come to this dance sufficient.” “I am already enough.”  Prior to having us dance a short sequence of choreography to music we’d never heard, she had us put our hands on our own bodies and pledge that it was OK to be different. That each of us would dance as a reflection of ourselves, and that itself was not simply acceptable, but good. The performances were indeed varied, but the collective result was extraordinarily beautiful. Individually, the explicit freedom to express what I felt, within the structure we’d been given, felt extraordinarily beautiful.

From a more technical standpoint, I have been thinking about this idea of sufficiency, together with the tenets of committing weight and dancing with confidence.  The fear of screwing up and looking like a fool causes me to be tentative in my movements, tense in my body, and focus narrowly on ‘correctly’ enacting the desires of my leader. Tentative movement is not as beautiful to watch, and often manifests in incomplete commitment of weight or “stutter steps,” which makes me harder to lead, as well as less fun.  Who do you want to go on an adventure with: your shy cousin who is like “OK…. I’ll go if you go, I guess…”? or the fearless neighbor girl who is like “I’ll meet you at the secret clubhouse with supplies at 3! Don’t be late!” Personally, I want to go with fearless girl, but by the same token, feeling badly about not being fearless enough is the opposite of productive. It’s wallowing.  And it is what I want to do away with in my dancing.

I want to apply the concepts that I’ve been learning through climbing, the mindset of not consulting irrational fear, to my dancing. There is no rational basis to the fear of “screwing up” and looking like a fool.  Honestly. No one cares. No one is out dancing to take joy in watching other people fail on the social floor. It will not kill me. It will not kill my partner. I doubt the leader of my personal-worst dance this weekend even remembers it. How is it that I can hang in a flash-flood waterfall, getting gallons per second of cold water in my face and manage to re-rig an anchor for descent and keep a cool head but I can’t forgive myself on the dance floor?

Furthermore, if I’m narrowly focused on following ‘correctly,’ I don’t dance. This idea of following-while-dancing instead of dancing-while-following came up this spring, when a friend of mine was kind enough to share her notes from a private lesson with Peter Strom. He pointed out that she ought to do “more dancing when [she’s] not being led.” That didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time. Then, this past weekend, Nathan Bugh likened learning partner dancing as all partnership and no dancing to people learning to fence by blocking the choreography of a fight with their hands tied behind their back for 6 years before being given a sword. The room was filled with uncomfortable laughter because this was how most of us learned to swing. Having had a little bit of time to think on it, I’m dying to get out on the floor and dance again in a different way than before, bringing myself and my dancing to a partnership, rather than having a asterisk on my metaphorical dance card that reads “works well under supervision.”

So I want to take the sword I was given last weekend and use it. I will take “reasonable precautions” (I will practice, I will continue to learn, I will drill on techniques I am weak in), but I will not consult irrational fear. I will take yes for an answer to “Would you like to dance?” and I will not worry that my partner is judging me. I will dance as if I am sufficient, and I will confidently place my weight and I will add my ideas to a dance that has plenty of room for both partners to be contributing. I will not feel ashamed for not being a perfect vessel of my leader’s will. I will follow, while I am dancing, rather than trying to tack dancing onto the gaps in my following.

And no matter how badly I miss the lead with the hottest dancer in the room, I will not die. So I will get over it and I will dance on.

—–
Christina Austin is a dancer from Columbus, Ohio.  She learned to swing in college in SC (2003-2006), but took a few years off before taking it up again in a more consuming way, when she discovered traveling and exchanges in early 2010.  She loves lindy and blues as social dances, and does very little competing.  She met Craig and Susanne at Pittstop 2010, and instant friendship was cemented when Craig realized she had a nerdtastic tattoo of Nobel Prize-winning science on her arm.  When she is not climbing or dancing, Christina is a graduate student in genetics.

4 Comments

Filed under Blues Dancing, Technique, Theory

4 responses to “Necessary and Sufficient

  1. Fenn

    I think this is a really fantastic post! I’m super glad that you let us in on your learning process. I’m sure there are a lot of follows out there who will benefit from reading this.

    You inspired me, and I wrote a response post: http://shortgirlphoto.blogspot.com/2011/07/response-to-necessary-and-sufficient.html

  2. Elaine Warfield

    Amen!! Elaine

  3. Pingback: Songs of the Month Club: June 2011 | All the Cats Join In

  4. This is great! I seem to have to learn this lesson over and over again, so the written reminder is a huge help =)

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